a tattered american flag is seen waving through barbed wire in the foreground
(File photo)

California’s bail system hurts the poor and tramples Jewish values

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The United States currently leads the world in incarceration rates, with more than 2.3 million people in our jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years. It is not crime rates that explain this increase, but rather changes in sentencing law and policy. Poverty, addiction, racially biased policing and our attitudes toward the three all continue to play major roles in putting people, particularly people of color, behind bars.

One of the most significant policy issues that affect the rates of incarceration in California is our money bail system. This system is a slap in the face to the Jewish community and the teachings of our Talmud. In Hebrew school, we learned about the Jewish values of helping the poor, showing mercy by giving people second chances and striving to make the world a more fair, just place for everyone. The way we treat people in California jails is a direct affront to those values.

Right now, roughly 45,000 people in California jails are awaiting sentencing or trial, many of them there because they can’t afford to pay bail and buy their freedom. There are 443,000 people who are awaiting trial in jails around the country because many cannot afford bail. We are simply filling up our jails with people who cannot afford to buy their freedom and preventing people in need of help and treatment from re-entering society.

A bill is moving through the state Legislature that will address these serious injustices and help make California’s criminal justice system more fair and just for everyone. The Money Bail Reform Act (SB 10) will help make sure California isn’t locking people up simply because they are unable to buy their freedom, while also promoting community safety and well-being.

California’s money bail system does not do a good job of promoting community health and safety. Right now, people who are unable to pay bail can lose their jobs, their cars, miss important bills or have kids go without their care. Who does it help for these folks to lose such instrumental pieces of their lives?

Californians spend about $5 million per day in taxpayer money to jail people who have not even received a sentence.

It is much more aligned with Jewish values to focus on rehabilitation and making amends, on forgiveness and change over punitive punishment. Nevertheless, many poor folks and people of color are locked up in jail for days, weeks and sometimes months because of how much money they make, not whether they are a flight or safety risk. This life-changing punishment is doled out before someone has had his or her day in court, all at the expense of American taxpayers. Currently, Californians spend about $5 million per day in taxpayer money to jail people who have not even received a sentence.

History has seen injustice after injustice happen, as one group oppressed another, justifying their behavior by citing societal advancement, national security and a million other reasons. A common thread has always been that the oppressed group has “deserved” its treatment: Jews were not seen as equals in Egypt during the time of Moses, just as African slaves and their descendants were explicitly not seen as humans for centuries. As a society, we’ve decided that people in jail deserve what they get no matter how severe, which is a morally unsustainable position.

Money bail disproportionately harms people of color, with bail amounts for black men an average of 35 percent higher than bail amounts for white men accused of similar offenses. Rates of drug use and sales are relatively comparable across racial lines, but people of color are much more likely to be searched, prosecuted and sentenced for these same acts. Two individuals who have been accused of the same crime are often treated differently based on their race and socioeconomic status, a type of bias Leviticus 19:15 explicitly forbids, as we are ordered “not [to] favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly.”

The Legislature is taking a step toward fixing this unjust system through this crucial piece of legislation. Urging our representatives to pass this bill will send a strong message in today’s political climate. Donald Trump’s harsh “law-and-order” rhetoric and his lies about increasing rates of crime are designed to make people think about our justice system with a mindset of fear, rather than one of compassion and rehabilitation. It plays to our demons and ultimately makes us less safe.

Our values as Jews and as Californians — belief in a society where all people are treated with dignity, kindness and respect — demand that we act to oppose Trump’s dangerous policies and make our state a model for the nation when it comes to our legal system. Contact your representatives and ask them to vote yes on SB10 (Money Bail Reform). The bill has passed the state Senate but will not become law unless we make an extra effort.

Call your state representatives and make sure they know which values we hold dear. They need to know that a yes vote is a vote for compassion, humanity and justice.

Benjamin Cohn
Benjamin Cohn

Benjamin Cohn is a volunteer leader with Bend the Arc in the Bay Area, the social action fellow at Or Shalom Jewish Community and works in The Center for Civic Engagement at Lick-Wilmerding High School.

Jennie Kogan
Jennie Kogan

Jennie Kogan is a volunteer leader with Bend the Arc in the Bay Area. She is a former AmeriCorps volunteer coordinator and has worked on affordable housing and community education.